The "Future" of English? Depends on what you mean by "English," if you ask me…

There’s a piece in Inside Higher Ed: by Margaret Soltan called “No Field, No Future,” where she argues, basically, that English as a field is collapsing for a variety of different reasons, most of which have to do with the problems of critical theory. Personally, I have a kind of morbid fascination with arguments that claim the “end” of my field– well, sort of my field, as I’ll get to a moment. So I really wanted to like this piece. Alas, I didn’t.

First, I think it is mainly a rehashing of the same old argument about how, as the result of critical theory that no one really understands, English departments have lost their way. I have some sympathy with this argument– but just some, and more important, I’ve heard it many times before.

Second and more important, Soltan doesn’t mean “English;” she means “Literature.” Now, while I realize that in many English departments, English is the same thing as “Literature” (in the essay and in the comments that follow it on the Inside Higher Ed site, the idea of studying English at a “prestigious school” crops up again and again), but this is certainly not the case in many (maybe most?) other English departments. As I’ve mentioned before, my own department is called “English Language and Literature,” which for me is a useful way of saying that our department includes literature, but includes a whole bunch of other stuff: linguistics, English education (by far our biggest undergraduate program), journalism, public relations (I know those last two are kind of unusual in an English department, but Journalism has been in EMU’s English department since the early 1900s), creative writing, technical/professional writing, and composition and rhetoric.

These last two fields/disciplines/whatever– technical and professional writing and composition and rhetoric– are intriguing omissions from an article that is supposedly about the lack of a future for the “field” of “English.”

Why did she do this?

Is Soltan unaware of the fact that composition and rhetoric exists as a “field” usually within English departments? Possibly, but given that there are at least 50 PhD programs in Composition and Rhetoric right now (not to mention probably another 100 MA programs) and that nearly every English department in the country teaches a significant amount of first year writing, this seems unlikely.

Or is she saying, in a very indirect way, that English = Literature and ONLY Literature, and the fact that that is changing (and has been changing for, I dunno, 40 years) is a bad thing? I think so, but I’m not sure. In any event, if what she’s really saying is “Literature is a field that has no future,” well, she might have a point.

4 thoughts on “The "Future" of English? Depends on what you mean by "English," if you ask me…”

  1. I know it’s easy for many in the rhet/comp camp to just dismiss Soltan as a literary critic coming to grips with the demise of her own field, but she’s not even that. Not really. Her definition of literary studies, while echoing the New Critics and Matthew Arnold before them (and the colonial project of Lord Macaulay before that, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charity Schools before that….), doesn’t even recognize or acknowledge the historical study of literature. Her piece is nothing more than a nostalgic dream of a past that never really was.

    Really, her definition of English Studies is nothing more than an exercise in narcissism (i.e., she insists that the field of English studies should be defined by what she does rather than recognizing that what she does is just a small part of the much larger discipline of English studies). It’s narrowism at its worst that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the traditions upon which her own narrow interests are based. But then, it shouldn’t be surprising that a strict (re)constructionist New Critic has no interest in historical understanding.

    As Ong argued decades ago, at its worst, New Criticism is, and always has been a closed field. As a tradition, it brought a number of useful tools and ideas to the table. But it never worked as a governing principle. The farther one gets from an eighteenth, nineteenth, or early twentieth century lyric poem, the less useful a strict New Critical reading holds together.

    I’ll end here by pointing to just one way her definition of English Studies as the aesthetic study of the great works of literature isn’t even a good definition of literary studies. For one, all the great works she thinks we should be spending our time cooing over are constructed artifacts created by textual scholars, scholars who mucked around with issues that she dismisses as destroying the field such as the materiality and production of texts and their social and cultural contexts. One wonders what she’d do if we took away her edited editions of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Wordsworth and dropped on her desk the whole mess of original and varrying versions of their works. We could start by asking something simple such as which version of Hamlet or of the Lyrical Ballads or The Canterbury Tales we should spend our time appreciating aesthetically. And, of course, once she makes such a choice, we should then point out how line X in her chosen version isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the line in the other versions.

    I discuss her lack of historical understanding of literary studies a bit more in depth in a a comment on Alex Reid’s blog, Digital Digs.

    So yeah, she wants to exclude rhetoric and composition studies from English, and while she’s not alone in this desire, their vision of English Studies is, and always has been, a fiction.

  2. Well…there is some truth to something she says about English departments in that they do tend to define themselves in terms of

    “a primary activity involving the reading and interpreting of literary texts in English”

    Whether or not a New Critical lens is applied that limits what is literary, what is reading and interpreting, and what the “ends” of readings and interpretatios are…this is farily descriptive of most people in an English department who are not Linguists, Rhetoric & Composition people, and Technical and Professional Writing people.

    It’s those last two that I know most about (and associate with), so I will simply say that the biggest “beef” I have here is that both of the key terms in Soltan’s characterization are deeply problematic for “us.” Let’s take them one at a time:

    1. A focus on “literary” texts – why is that not the realm of art? texts as art? what portion of texts does that focus allow you to exclude from studying how folks use English? uh…99%?

    2. A focus on reading and interpretion – in other words, constructing a post-hoc and relatively culturally-specific situation for consuming texts; let’s see…that leaves out, once again, roughly 99% of the way “text” get taken up, used, read, and interpreted in the (English speaking or otherwise) world.

    Maybe that’s why your “field” is dying, Ms. Soltan? Because it is intellectually bankrupt in that it can ignore the vast, vast majority of things that actually happen in the making and using of texts in English. Worse, it is irresponsibly non-critical of the Educational context in which such “study” arose – a context that viewed Education as the further enrichment of a leisure class.

    Please, do go on sipping your lattes and reflecting on Great Works and arguing about how to determine them. We’ll be over here paying attention to what really goes on when people use English (the language, I mean).

  3. Actually, I think that John is more correct when he says that Soltan is being narcassistic (sp??) when “she insists that the field of English studies should be defined by what she does rather than recognizing that what she does is just a small part of the much larger discipline of English studies.”

    There are of course many departments where “English” is the same as “Literature,” and I think that is what Soltan might be picturing. But there are also a lot of departments where that isn’t the case. So Bill, when you suggest that her view of English departments “is farily descriptive of most people in an English department who are not Linguists, Rhetoric & Composition people, and Technical and Professional Writing people,” what you’re pointing out what John is pointing out, sort of.

    Let me put it this way: there are 49 faculty in my “English Language and Literature” department. A significant majority of those faculty, 32, are NOT in “Literature,” at least the way it’s defined here. Rather, these people do the things that you list– plus creative writing, Children’s Literature, journalism, and PR. While I do have some literature colleagues who seemingly haven’t figured this out yet, most have and most (not all, but most) of them recognize that intellectually and politically, they have to work with these other people.

    I think this configuration and this balance of a not heavy literature department has been a good thing. At EMU, we’re the largest department ahd that has certain benefits, and basically, the faculty all gets along remarkably well, something that is often not the case. But at another school (say…. MSU), it at some point made political sense for writing and rhetoric to get out of English– of course, the configuration with the “American Thought and Language” is its own weird deal.

    Anyway, my only point is that, politically speaking, when it comes to things like the role of things other than “Literature” in an English department, your mileage will vary.

    One other thing: I don’t think the field of Literature is dying (if it is dying) because it is intellectually bankrupt; I think the problem that Literature has is they do not have a culture wherein they have to justify/explain themselves. Literally, when my colleagues are asked things like “Why do you study ‘great literature?'”, the answer they give is something like “How could you even ask that question?” Back in “the day,” they could get away with that answer for a variety of different reasons. But nowadays, especially in an era in which colleges and universities– especially places like EMU, which is really a school for students that are very different than the ones who attend that quaint liberal arts university in Ann Arbor, the one with the football team — are expected to justify all kinds of different things, they “why study x?” is a real question that MUST be answered.

    Conversely, I think that fields like composition and rhetoric are actually thriving in this era because we have ALWAYS had to justify our existence as an intellectual and even “practical” enterprise. In other words, we tahe the question “Why do you study ‘writing’?” seriously and we know how to answer that question very very well.

  4. One other thing: I don’t think the field of Literature is dying (if it is dying) because it is intellectually bankrupt; I think the problem that Literature has is they do not have a culture wherein they have to justify/explain themselves.

    Exactly. The Soltan impulse, if I may call it that for the moment, is a desire for a past that *never* was. Or, more accurately, never was except for a small circle of elites. As I’ve already pointed out, Soltan’s view of literary studies is entirely fictional. While a school of such people can exist, their basic activities, the aesthetic appreciation of “great literature” can only happen after earlier literary scholarship is done, scholarship that involves the material, the social, the cultural, the political, the economic, the linguistic, the rhetorical, the historical, etc. And that’s just “traditional” scholarship, the kinds of literary scholarly activities that predate New Criticism. The thing is, I think a good number of the original New Critics knew this, which is why I call Soltan and her ilk strict (re)constructionist New Critics. But there were New Critics who promoted this idea.

    Conversely, however, and I’m sure I’ll run into trouble here, I see echoes of Soltan in some circles of rhetoric, composition, and professional writing. The myths that rhetoric and poetic have and have had nothing to do with each other, the strict classification between art (literature) and craft (composition studies and professional writing), and the assumption that our modern notion of literature, text, and author hold throughout history to name just a few. I realize that much of this is a reaction to Soltanic ideology, but that doesn’t make it right.

    I do think Steve’s right in that composition and rhetoric are thriving because they have no difficulty in articulating their intellectual and practical value inside and outside of academia. Literary scholars have far too long been given a pass on this question and so many of them can’t articulate anything beyond platitudes or get indignant when asked. I don’t think it’s difficult at all to justify the role of literature and its study and my answers have little to do with appreciating beauty or making one a better person. But that’s the subject of another rant. Or, better yet, a topic best discussed over beer.

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